Being a lesbian in conservative and hypocritical Nigeria is akin to a brutal death sentence.
Unoma Azuah in her 2020 book, Embracing My Shadow: Growing up Lesbian in Nigeria, bares it all.
The personable Unoma Azuah shatters all inhibitions by telling her story of growing up a lesbian in good old Nigeria in an asonishing memoir like no other.
Unoma delves into her somewhat problematic parentage of a Tiv soldier father and an Igbo teacher mother forged in the throes and tragedy of the Nigeria-Biafra war.
The family lived in diverse places especially in the old Midwest Region or Bendel State, notably in the towns of Ekpoma, Auchi, Uromi, Yauri and Umunede.
It was in Umunede that Unoma’s soldier father died while she was aged six and her brother Ugonna was barely one.
Sex became an early ordeal when playing with the boys as 14-year-old Ezekiel would lift six-year-old Unoma “and place me on top of one of the garri bags and then hump away.”
While living in Idu village where her mother served as a teacher, Unoma told her fellow pupils: “I would like to study sociology or psychology at the university.”
This earned her the nickname “Unono ology”.
Unoma’s arrival at puberty was a shocker she was not prepared for as her mother wrapped an old cloth between her legs and thighs, saying: “My little girl has become a woman.”
Then came the motherly advice: “Now you must really stop playing with boys!”
It was when she moved to Nsukka – first at the University of Nigeria primary school, and then at the Queen of the Rosary secondary school – that the matter of her sexuality soared into controversial heights.
She loved the girl Ihu and made to kiss her, only to be pushed off gently with the words: “I am sorry, but I am not a lesbian!”
Unoma’s attraction to her senior, Ano, attracted this rebuff: “Who will help me deal with this puppy, this little lesbian that keeps following me around like a stray dog?”
When she met the girl Star they hit it off thusly: “When I first met Star and had a crush on her, I was eager to explore my attraction to her. She made me feel comfortable with discovering parts of my body that lit up at her touch. She taught me that it was okay to express my feelings. If I was hesitant about kissing her, she’d cup my cheeks in her hands and kiss me deeply. I learned how to respond and kiss back. She opened me up to love. Though she was a year my senior, it didn’t matter to me that she was older.”
Unoma was a tormented soul who kept scribbling “Questions for God”, and she was lured to a “Night Vigil” where the presiding Pastor assailed her with the words: “There is somebody here who likes girls, the way a boy should love a girl. She has a weakness for women. She is possessed.”
Unoma persevered in her quest for love until she met Chinelo, to whom Embracing My Shadow is dedicated.
She tossed a note to the beautiful girl whom she fondly called Nelo thus: “I like you, but I am not a lesbian.”
Both fun girls would say the rosary and then go ahead frolicking, as Unoma writes: “I needed the prayers, any prayers that would save me from the tumultuous wallops of my heart. My whole body responded to her, and it was scary; something I couldn’t explain. My attraction to her was intense. She was so beautiful and I couldn’t believe that my fantasy of her wanting me as much as I wanted her was possible. I wanted to take her and put her inside of me: safe and secure. Out of impulse, I lay on her thigh, and it felt like cushions of clouds, cradling and warm. Warmth seemed to rise from her and seep into my cold chest and my whole body. This felt like home. This was where I belonged.”
When she was admitted into the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 1988 she was encouraged by her friends to forget her lesbian past and try out with boys but it turned out a disaster because a boy’s kisses could not spark the feelings such as Nelo’s and Star’s.
Unoma tells it all as it is, hiding nothing: “I needed to masturbate. My roommate was there, and the toilet was too repulsive. It reeked of stale shit and was littered with maggots and chunks of dried faeces. I couldn’t use it. I wanted to run out into the open fields and scream until I passed out. I was so randy I could have stuffed any woman’s fingers or tongue up my vagina.”
After graduation and doing her one-year national service, she was home to Asaba only for her mother to tell her: “Go and marry or find a job!”
She set off for the bright lights of the big city of Lagos on a friend’s invitation and met the wealthy Nelly who had a husband but wanted Unoma to be her pet.
While they were in Nelly’s home her husband who was supposed to have travelled suddenly arrived, and Unoma had to hide under the bed while husband and wife made love on the bed.
Unoma peed on herself and eventually fled with this lamentation: “I knew Nelly was married, but that notion seemed so distant because I never met her husband. I was humiliated to the point of self-spite. I hated myself and loathed her even more for putting me in a position to be treated as less than an animal. Maybe we both were at fault, but I was done.”
Unoma’s essay published in the Vanguard newspaper entitled “The Emerging Lesbian Voice in Nigerian Feminist Literature” met with what she tagged as a “blistering response from Kalu, who was a schoolmate from UNN and at that time was a journalist in Lagos.”
Kalu’s attack, in Unoma’s words “became the beginning of my nightmares in Lagos.”
The camaraderie within the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) somewhat provided succour for Unoma.
After a frightful homophobic attack in Lagos, she made a frantic call to the American LGBT activist Leslye Huff who secured “a scholarship for a Master’s programme in English in Ohio for me.”
So off to the USA Unoma went, and this book is her song, her story.